“Could this be a hidden path?” “Be wary of liar.”
These glowing comments (and many others like them) were sitting right next to one another in a random cave on a random part of Elden Ring’s enormous map. This question—is there a hidden wall?—is, far and away, the question Elden Ring players struggle with the most. There are so many rooms to discover in FromSoftware’s sprawling open world, and so many opportunities to wonder if smacking it with a sword will prompt a wall to fade away, revealing a lovely secret.
The answer is almost always no, resulting in FromSoftware’s virtual kingdom being littered with ongoing arguments between A) people who want to trick you into wasting your time hitting or rolling into a wall to see if it’ll disappear B) people who want to tell you the person trying to trick you into wasting your time are a liar C) people who want to warn you to avoid wasting your time with the messages about A and B people clustered near the next wall.
And then, you have people like this.
The result is that most people are like me: they recognize the propaganda and deception being littered throughout Elden Ring, but in a game where discovery and curiosity is rewarded, where players frequently are actually helpful, what’s the risk? In previous Souls games, striking enemies and objects degraded a weapon, but in Elden Ring, that’s not true.
Why not hit the wall, then, as a treat?
There are hidden paths in Elden Ring, but they are few and far between, and have been ever since FromSoftware introduced the concept of “illusory walls” in 2009’s Demon’s Souls. The concept goes even further back in FromSoftware’s history, with hidden walls aplenty in the dungeon crawling King’s Field series. (In King’s Field IV: The Anciety City, there’s an item that turns hidden walls into the color green. There’s no such luck in the Souls games.)
What’s interesting is that, historically, there aren’t that many illusory walls in these games! Millions of people are swinging in the dark at the mere chance of something that’s unlikely! I am one of these people and I’m shouting because I want to feel better about what I’m doing!
“Demon's Souls surprisingly has very few, despite setting a lot of trends for the series,” said noted Souls archaeologist Illusory Wall, who pulls their online pseudonym from the term, to Waypoint. (I highly recommend their videos on FromSoftware level design, for example, and they were instrumental in helping me sift through a bunch of the information in this article.)
Demon’s Souls has three illusory walls, with a bonus fourth added for the remake. That’s not many, but FromSoftware liked the idea enough to add a lot more to 2011’s Dark Souls—17 in total. But it’s also at this point that FromSoftware diverts in some key ways. For one, in Demon’s Souls, the illusory walls jiggle a little bit, suggesting players should investigate.
That effect is also present in the remake, but then it’s completely absent in Dark Souls.
(It’s hard to notice the effect, but at this time stamp you can see the illusory wall in action.)
There are even caveats with Dark Souls’ 17 illusory walls. 14 of them can be opened by hitting them or rolling into them, breaking the magic, but three others require a special item or event to occur. A humorous fact: it’s possible to attack or roll to open an illusory wall in every case but in the original Dark Souls. Just one of them will not open unless attacked.
“There is no clear reason for having done this and I believe they most likely just copy/pasted the wrong object defense value for it,” said Illusory Wall, who also discussed this in a video.
Dark Souls 2 really ramps up the presence of illusory walls, specifically because it plays with the rules of “what” an illusory wall even is in these games. Is it still an illusory wall if it needs to be destroyed using a nearby exploding barrel? What if the wall in question disappears with the same animation of an illusory wall, but requires the use of a key to make it vanish?
“Dark Souls 2's version of an illusory wall switched to something more akin to King's Field, where you need to press a button alongside an illusory wall instead of attacking it,” said Illusory Wall. “Though of course the tradition for this kind of false wall goes back much further to games like Wolfenstein 3D.”
For many, myself included, this obsession really does go back to id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, where smacking the spacebar all over the place would, frequently, reward players with a wall that delightfully slid away. Convincing wonderkind programmer John Carmack to the sliding walls was an argument that lasted months at id Software, reported PC Gamer last year. Talking through an idea over several months of game development might not sound like a lot, but in total, Wolfenstein 3D only took four months to make!
"id Software had included secret areas in Wolfenstein 3D but to find them you basically had to walk up to every single wall and bump it to see if it opened, " says Doom level designer Sandy Peterson to PC Gamer. "We decided that was boring and sucky, so we decreed that in Doom, there would be a clue for every secret. And there is. Sometimes it's pretty subtle, but it’s always there."
There are rarely such clues for Souls fans, who instead spend their waking hours banging swords and axes like pots and pans, and hoping a wall will disappear like a puff of smoke.
By the old definition, Dark Souls 2 has 28 illusory walls, with 25 of them featured in the main game and three added later alongside downloadable content. The number rockets into the 30s if we start including, say, exploding barrels. It’s also believed to be the moment when the Souls community started really trolling one another about the prospect of an illusory wall.
“A lot of people would place messages by random dead ends, lying about the prospect of a hidden path,” said Illusory Wall. “If you knew where an illusory wall was and someone placed a message near the wall, the game prioritized the interaction for the wall so it wasn't really a problem. Player messages never truly blocked these walls. But that didn't stop deceptive messages from frustrating a ton of people, where it was assumed that the message they left was blocking an interaction. You would find tons of posts on forums lamenting ‘stop blocking illusory walls with your messages!’”
2015’s Bloodborne ratcheted the illusory wall count way down to five, not counting the walls that could pop up in the game’s randomized Chalice Dungeons. 2016’s Dark Souls 3, however, continued the tradition of its predecessor and featured 26 illusory walls in total.
Interestingly, Demon’s Souls features no explicit reference to the term “illusory wall,” so far as I can tell. This didn't happen until Dark Souls, and even then, it required players to use a magic spell called Seek Guidance, which allows you to see more player-created messages and secret messages left by the development team at FromSoftware. Such as this one:
And there it is: illusory wall. A Google search for “illusory wall” brings up references to Demon’s Souls, but it mostly seems like people are applying this term retroactively. You can see this happen in real-time by pulling up Google searches for “illusory wall” since 2004:
That first big spike? October 2011, a few weeks after the release of Dark Souls. The next big spike? April 2014, a few weeks after the release of Dark Souls 2. Both moments of time are right around when people would be digging through both games, hoping to find their secrets. The associated topics and search queries confirm these suspicions: “dark souls illusory wall,” “dark souls,” “dark souls 2,” “dark souls 2 illusory wall.” You start to get the idea.
Illusory wall, as FromSoftware-ian as it might sound, is also not a term of its own making. Like many aspects of Souls, it’s lifted from existing fantasy universes—in this case, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. Well, sort of. It’s also associated with the psychological concept of “illusory correlation,” the perception of a relationship that does not exist. And the etymology of illusory runs all the way back to the 1590s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
“1590s, from French illusorie, from Late Latin illusorius "ironical, of a mocking character," from illus-, past participle stem of Latin illudere "mock, jeer at, make fun of," literally "play with," from assimilated form of in- "at, upon" (from PIE root *en "in") + ludere "to play" (see ludicrous).”
Wizards of the Coast, who purchased the company behind the Dungeons & Dragons property in the 90s, told Waypoint the earliest it can pin a reference to illusory is 1978.
“‘Illusory’ as an adjective certainly dates back centuries,” said D&D executive producer Ray Winninger. “It appears in a number of spell descriptions in the 1st edition Player’s Handbook (‘Phantasmal Force,’ for instance), where it was already used interchangeably with ‘illusionary.’”
Pinning down the interchangeably proved harder. Was it just more fun to write illusory?
“‘Illusionary’ seems to be a longer and less common way to say ‘illusory,’” said Jonathan Tweet, who was lead designer on the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons from 2000.
“I think the editors at Wizards changed a lot of things,” said Tweet. “That was likely one of them. They also changed ‘PHB’ to ‘PH’ (since Handbook is one word) and changed long sword to longsword, etc. As I recall, we let the editors do their thing. The editors at Wizards had a lot of power at that time.”
In a Game Informer profile of Souls designer Hidetaka Miyazaki from 2015, reporter Tim Turi noted “a handful of Magic: The Gathering cards are scattered across his [office] table” and “a Dungeons & Dragons paperback guide is wedged underneath a computer monitor.”
You can see plainly from the Google search data that it was not exactly a popular term until Souls. The reason a search for “illusory wall” on Google right now brings up thousands of links to Souls-related articles, videos, and wikis is because FromSoftware has cultural ownership over the term illusory wall, regardless of its origins within Dungeons & Dragons.
How can you argue otherwise when you have rock bands like The World Is a Beautiful Place producing an album in 2021 called “Illusory Walls,” with the title track “Invading the World of the Guilty?” Because in Souls games, see, you invade other players. (Pitchfork reviewed the album a 6.8/10 and called it “the most technically proficient and hard-hitting music in their discography, albeit at the cost of their unique intimacy and warmth.” Not bad for Pitchfork.)
It’s extremely funny to overlay illusory wall and illusionary wall in the same time period:
Even though the Souls games specifically use the term illusory, you can see people conflating illusory with illusionary in the same way that Dungeons & Dragons itself did, because the searches spike alongside releases of new Souls games happen simultaneously.
Part of what makes FromSoftware’s games so enchanting is because you never know what’s around the corner, and this trickery is only enhanced by the community leaving mixtures of helpful, contradictory, and antagonistic messages. Deception is part of the experience. Even if reality (and history) suggests when it comes to the matter of fake walls, you should assume one doesn’t exist, that it could exist is tempting enough for many, myself included.
In fact, just a few days ago, a message told me I should roll over a random patch of rocks. I scoffed, laughed, and then…rolled over the rocks…and for once, the rocks disappeared.
You never know.